The Power of the Word – Part 1

Differentiating yourself through verbal identity

While the visual side of brand identity such as the logo usually hogs the limelight, the power of the word – your verbal identity – plays an equally vital role in shaping how a brand is perceived. In a nutshell, your verbal identity is the voice of your brand. In this post we will discuss what a verbal identity is, and talk about each of its core elements.

As someone famously said ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, and when it comes to branding, this isn’t just an old cliche that’s well past its expiry date. Because although we tend to think of the logo as the most obvious expression of a brand, the brand name and how the brand speaks to its various audiences is equally essential for its success. In fact these are two sides of the same coin. The true power of your brand identity can only be realised when the visual and verbal aspects of the identity are equally strong, and totally integrated. Why do they need to be equal, you may ask? Because if you’ve got a great logo with a weak name, or a great name with a weak logo, both scenarios are as bad as each other, and will cause your brand to fail. If you want to build a powerful brand that will give you strong market differentiation and cut-through, you need both the visual and the verbal identity to work equally well, and reinforce each other.

As with visual identity, the verbal identity should reflect the brand’s underlying narrative. For example, Google. It’s a made-up name that is totally unique, but it’s derived from the word ‘googol’, which in mathematics refers to a very large number (10 to the 100th power). Which is why it was chosen by Google’s founders Larry Page and Seth Brin, because it evoked just how much information the search engine would uncover. This is a bit of a nerdy root, but the name is catchy and has strong associative power, which perhaps is one reason why ‘google’ has become the generic word for ‘search the internet’, overtaking rivals like Bing and Yahoo. And bearing in mind that Google’s visual identity is constantly fluid (again suggesting the vastness and diversity of their reach), it’s their verbal identity that’s the most fixed and stable part of their brand signature. Although even the name is allowed to ‘streeeetch’ now and then.

Google and Amazon are both examples of how important verbal identity is, particularly when the name is firmly rooted in the brand narrative, and the visual aspect of the identity reinforces the verbal.

Then there’s Amazon. Jeff Bezos chose the name because it refers literally to the largest river in the world, which again, associatively suggests the vastness of their product range and content. It also helped that Amazon begins with an ‘A’, and had a ‘Z’ in it. Which is why their logo device dynamically interacts with the name, by linking the “A-to-Z” in the word with an arched arrow. Again, it links the name with the underlying brand narrative, suggesting that Amazon offers everything, from A-Z. And their logo design literally underscores this. As Bezos himself said, alot of the success of Amazon “comes down to the brand name. Brand names are more important online than they are in the physical world.”

So just by looking at the above two marketplace examples, we can see how important verbal identity is, especially when it is rooted in the brand narrative. That said, how should we define verbal identity, and what are its core elements?

Defining Verbal Identity

If a visual identity consists of the logo, trademark, fonts, colours, supergraphics, photographic style, and the visual language that you employ — verbal identity refers to the linguistic aspects of a brand’s identity — how it communicates through words and language. As such it covers the verbal expressions of your brand used in all forms of communication, including the branded environment, packaging, marketing and investor materials, website content, and social media — and across all key stakeholder interactions. 

In the digital age where content is king, verbal identity plays a critical role in shaping how your target audience engages with your brand. From social media posts to customer service interactions, the voice of your brand shapes how your brand is perceived and remembered in the minds of your key stakeholders.

If your verbal identity is clear and consistent, your brand will communicate more effectively. Each element contributes to the overall brand experience, helping you stand out in a crowded marketplace.  

So that’s how you define verbal identity. Now let’s take a look at its core elements, and see how can we leverage them for brand success. As we see it, verbal identity has six components, encompassing the brand’s name, nomenclature, tone of voice, messaging, storytelling, language style and vocabulary.

1. Naming

We’ll be diving deeper into naming and nomenclature in our next blogpost ‘The Power of the Word – Part 2’, including how to build them. But for the purposes of inclusivity, here we will cover both these components in summary form. Naming refers to the process of either choosing or inventing a name for a brand, and its various offerings. Whether the name itself becomes the logo (as in a logotype like Samsung) or it is accompanied by a symbol (like Apple), a unique and memorable name captures attention, sets the brand apart from its competitors, and leaves a lasting impression on consumers. 

So naming is as fundamental to the formation of brand identity as logo design, and as with the visual identity, it therefore needs to be rooted in the essence of the brand and reflect its fundamental DNA, conveying its values, personality, and positioning. Whether it’s the brand name itself, product names, or service offerings, the right naming choices can evoke just the right associations.

2. Nomenclature

Nomenclature or ‘naming conventions’ are optional ways to describe a system or protocol that governs how a company names its brand portfolio, or services, or subsidiaries, in a way that is logical and supports its business growth. As such it is the visual expression of brand architecture which, as we described in our previous blogpost here, refers to the hierarchical structure that defines the relationship between different brands or companies in a group portfolio. Both with each other, and with the group or master brand that owns them. So nomenclature is about ensuring consistency and clarity in the way businesses are named, and support the overall strategic direction of the group. 

With that in mind, nomenclature also needs to be future proofed – in other words it should be scalable enough to accommodate future growth and expansion. As brands evolve and diversify their offerings, a well-thought-out naming system allows for each new entity to be named in a way that ensures consistency and coherence across the brand portfolio.

3. Tone of voice

The tone of voice represents the personality and attitude of the brand. It sets the overall mood and vibe of the brand’s communication, guiding how it interacts with its audience. Whether playful and irreverent, warm and friendly, or formal and authoritative, the tone of voice should be a natural expression of the brand’s values, and resonate with its target audience. Simply put, it’s the way a brand should come across, in spoken and written formats. 

For example, if you are a “friendly” brand, then you must ‘talk with a smile’, and be more personable and approachable. Which means that you’ll always talk in the first person (never in the third person), and in terms of your writing style, you’ll be more direct, using active language, and never talk down to your audience. You’ll also avoid overly technical jargon, and employ shorter sentences and paragraphs. 

The other thing is to use your defined attributes as a starting point. Often when we are developing brand strategy for our clients, and take them through our Brand DNA® process, we will arrive at three attributes that represent our client’s brand personality. The first of these attributes is rational; the second is emotional; and the last is relational. All of the attributes are intended to be behavioural, in other words, they should be translated into how our client’s brand walks and talks. For example, if we define our client’s brand attributes as ‘reliable, driven, and collaborative’, then the tone of voice of the brand in written or spoken communications should reflect these attributes. 

4. Storytelling

If you think about your visual identity as providing a visual “shortcut” to your brand story, then your verbal identity should be what reflects that story in written form. Every brand has a story behind it – a narrative about why and how it came into being, what its purpose is, what it stands for, and how that story unfolded over the years. People have always liked to know where a brand came from, but the fact is, millennials in particular love stories, because they value authenticity. Becks Vogels, Forbes contributor and storytelling expert, says, “Stories are the new millennial currency,” which is to say that nowadays brands need to give their audience a strong reason to believe in them, as well as a context in which to better understand their values, and their point of view. The brand story gives it that authentic context.

We sometimes refer to brand story as a brand’s “promise”, or its “compelling truth” — meaning that the story needs to be both relevant (ie, compelling to your target audience in that it meets their needs) and true (ie, authentic to who the brand is, and what it delivers ). In terms of their story, many brands are compelling but not true, or true but not compelling. Both are bad.  For those that are compelling but not true, under the harsh scrutiny of today’s social media environment, this is never going to work. For those that are true but not compelling — it’s an invitation for a competitor to steal your thunder. So for today’s brands, having an authentic story to tell, and relating it really well, is vitally important.

5. Messaging

Brand messaging encompasses the core ideas, propositions and promises that a brand communicates to its various audiences. It includes taglines, slogans, and key messaging points that encapsulate everything that a brand wants to say. Effective brand messaging should be clear and consistent across all channels, reinforcing the brand’s positioning and differentiation.

As with tone of voice and brand story, a brand’s messaging needs to support and reflect a brand’s essence. It also needs to consider the competitive environment — so that you don’t just sound like a “me-too” brand. 

Think in terms of putting together a “family” of messages that support your overall brand narrative. You cannot say everything in one sentence, and certain messages may be relevant for a particular target group, or specific stage of the selling process. For example, what you say to gain attention may be different from what you say to build loyalty. They need to be sequenced.  

We always recommend our clients to categorise their key messages in terms of “action-based” messages and “key-pillar” messages. 

These are the ‘action based’ messages we developed for our client, Prolink, taken from the ‘Brand Toolkit’ we created for them.

Action-based messaging: One of the simplest ways to create business-to-consumer (B2C) messaging that doesn’t sound like everyone else, is to consider your brand promise as a starting point for developing a series of action-based messages. In other words, messages that are designed to illicit a response in your target audience, which is to say that they are sequenced to help them think, feel, or do something. For example, our client Prolink, who specialise in providing data connection products, mainly for the home. The brand promise we devised for them was to “Connect your life”. So following this, we crafted a series of key messages that fit elegantly together with their brand promise … ‘Connect your world’ (a ‘rational’ message), ‘Connect your vibe’ (an ‘emotional’ message), ‘Connect your family’ (a ‘relational’ message). 

Key-pillar messaging: Key-pillar messaging is about communicating a brand’s “unique selling propositions” or USPs. This works especially well for B2B brands, where messaging may require more rational substance and maybe a little less emotion. By substance, we mean that the key messages will need to be supported by “reasons to believe” that are anchored in solid facts about your brand. Sometimes this is referred to as a “messaging house” and is shown in a form that resembles a house with the roof being the brand promise, while the key messages, like pillars, support the roof. 

We call it a ‘Messaging Matrix’, one example being the messaging matrix we developed for Sime Darby Property Industrial, a business focused on industrial products. The brand promise we created was “The Go-To Experts”, and the key messages included: The Go-To Experts For Regional Expansion … The Go-To Experts For Integrated Solutions … The Go-To Experts For Synergistic Partnerships … The Go-To Experts For Business Growth — each message is supported by a key pillar (or area of differentiation), reasons to believe, and a USP for each.

6. Vocabulary and language style

Before we spoke of the ‘tone of voice’ of brand, which reflects its personality. Closely related to this is the vocabulary or language style a brand uses when it speaks, which will reflect not so much the personality of the brand as the industry it is in, and the audience it is talking to. Brands may adopt a more technical language in industries such as finance or healthcare, while opting for a more conversational, relatable tone in consumer-facing industries like fashion or food. Speaking the right language establishes credibility, and doing it consistently can help reinforce brand identity.

That said, while this is important to establish credibility, it doesn’t always help with cut through. Because if every brand in the same category is speaking with exactly the same language, there is no differentiation between them. Which is why, when we are working with our clients on their language style, we start by building an understanding of the keywords used by their competitors. The more frequently they are used, the more likely we recommend our clients to avoid them, and find a different way to talk about the same thing. A way that is unique to them. 

For example, working in the transport industry where the emphasis is on safety, reliability, and efficiency, the tendency is to use a vocabulary that is very technical and formal. It’s far too easy to copy and paste the same words. So we try be more imaginative and stretch the vocabulary, perhaps into more emotive territory. The aim is to get the balance right – between establishing credibility and creating differentiation.

Harnessing the ‘Power of the Word’

In summary, how you speak as a brand is vitally important, with enormous potential for building your brand identity in a way that is impactful and differentiating. Harnessing the “Power of the Word” for your brand will mean carefully considering all the components we have discussed above – your naming, nomenclature, tone of voice, storytelling, messaging, and your choice of language style and vocabulary. In the second post, we will zero in on naming and nomenclature, and describe a process that you can use to create or refresh your brand name.

Build your brand identity with us: We know how to create a compelling brand identity and design the iterations of it in a consistent way, at every customer touchpoint. With our unrivalled expertise in brand strategy, naming and identity design, and having worked with brand owners across Singapore, SE Asia and the world, we are able to craft inspiring brands and a holistic brand experience, in any market. If anything we have written above in the blogpost strikes a chord, and you need our assistance, do get in touch with us here.